Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Promises Profit for Moguls, Perils for Everyone Else

For mile after mile, the ancient boreal forests of Alberta and British Columbia formed a lush emerald empire of evergreens and wildlife that, dotted with lakes and traced by rivers, stretched over hills and mountains from horizon to horizon. Elusive woodland caribou, called the grey ghosts of the forest, foraged on lichen that had taken a hundred years to grow amidst the ancient woods. Black bear and lynx hunted among the pines. 40% of North American migratory birds, thousands upon thousands of mallard, blue-wing teal, northern shoveller and black duck, nested and bred in the boreal forest.

The boreal forest, with its thick, lush carpet of moss and peat and composted vegetation, was the world's largest above-ground carbon sequestration system, storing countless tons of organic carbon.

Like a vicious black cancer, huge expanses of devastated wasteland gouged at the boreal forest, churned earth stripped bare of trees, of brush, of grass, of hundred-year-old lichen. That no living thing could exist in the scarred wasteland tearing into the ancient old growth boreal was starkly obvious. To call it moonscape only sanitized the toxic tailings ponds and horrific cancer clusters in the small downstream communities.

The oil moguls had come, and had ripped the earth asunder to scrape from it the thick, sludgy muck called tar sand.

The primeval boreal forest was being ripped open to get at the Athabascan oil sands, 173 billion barrels of oil, worth some $15 trillion. Republicans and oil moguls were orgasmic with the prospect of destroying a priceless wilderness and lining their pockets with wealth beyond imagining.

The only problem was how to get that 173 billion barrels of oil to the international markets, and to get that $15 trillion into their pockets.

Thus, while Republicans in Congress balked and blustered at any suggestion of addressing the $2 trillion of infrastructure repairs America desperately needed, they rabidly pursued one particular $7 billion infrastructure project: TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.

The Keystone XL would wind 1,661 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, right through the heart of the American Mountain West, across or under 1,900 rivers, streams and reservoirs, across the Sand Hills of Nebraska, through the Ogallala Aquifer, to Port Arthur, Texas.

Congressional Republicans pushed through a bill demanding the Keystone XL be granted Presidential approval before environmental impact studies could be completed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at first supportive of the pipeline, backed off when apprised of safety concerns. As TransCanada was a foreign corporation, and the pipeline an international affair, Clinton and the US State Department was in the thick of it.

Pipeline skeptics and environmental activists planned two weeks of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. beginning August 20 to raise Keystone XL awareness.

Protest organizer Bill McKibben said he hoped it would be "the biggest civil disobedience protest in the environmental movement for many, many years."

While Republicans thumped their chests and howled about securing a 'domestic' oil source for America, the raw tar sands oil slated for Port Arthur's refineries wasn't necessarily meant for domestic consumption.

"This oil is not for domestic consumption," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said aghast. "This oil is for foreign export. It has very little to do with domestic oil supply, or might have very little to do with domestic oil supply."

"If we do not tap this valuable resource, the Chinese or other countries will," Bill Flores (R-TX) whined, his eyes doubtless glazing over at the thought of thrusting 15 trillion dollar bills into some stripper's g-string.

The US Energy Department revealed existing pipelines had enough capacity to double the amount of oil the United States was importing from Canada. An existing Keystone pipeline, without the racy-sounding XL suffix, ran from Canada and terminated in Oklahoma.

The primary attraction of the Keystone XL was its terminus at the refineries of Port Arthur, on the Gulf of Mexico, with its ready access to the sea lanes that could carry refined product to international markets.

The primary problem of the Keystone XL was that the 1,661 miles of its 36-inch pipe was designed to carry ordinary processed oil products much thinner than the gooey muck that was raw tar sands oil. The raw tar sands oil would have to be forced through the pipeline at much higher pressure than regular oil, and posed special safety challenges.

TransCanada claimed potential for accidental spills would be limited to just 11 over the 50-year lifespan of the pipeline, but TransCanada's existing pipeline accomplished 12 spills in just one year.

While most Americans were riveted by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, a four-foot rupture in Canada-based Enbridge, Inc.'s pipeline dumped a million gallons of toxic sludge into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, devastating riparian habitat.

"I am deeply concerned about the effects of the oil spill near Marshall, including the environmental impact, and the disruption to residents and businesses," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). "It is also deeply worrisome that the oil from the spill has made its way into the Kalamazoo River."

Enbridge's spill went unchecked for 12 hours, because of particular uncertainties associated with transporting raw tar sands oil. Raw tar sands oil mixed with toxic additives that helped it move through pipelines, called dilbit, or diluted bitumen, tended to form bubbles of a natural gas-like substance that can cause the flow to get stuck. The prescription for dealing with these gas-bubble 'column separations' was to pump more gas down the line. But, if the pipeline had actually burst, pumping more gas into the line made the resulting spill worse.

Which was what happened in Michigan. A flow interruption diagnosed as a column separation had actually been a pipeline rupture. 12 hours elapsed before the spill was stopped.

The Keystone XL would carry 910,000 barrels of dilbit a day across 1,700 miles, under the Missouri River, across the heart of Nebraska wheat fields, and through the Ogallala Aquifer, a 174,000 square mile natural freshwater reservoir that provided drinking water for 2 million people and irrigation for 20% of America's agriculture.

Conservative Nebraska farmers and progressive environmental activists were alarmed at the prospect of more than 300 million barrels of dilbit traversing the nation's spine every year, destined to become refined petroleum product slated for sale to the highest international bidder.

The bill House Republicans pushed through in July requiring the Obama Administration to make a decision on the Keystone XL was largely symbolic, as it had little chance of surviving in the Senate.

"If we're going to rush through the environmental permitting process for a project that has questionable benefits for our nation, we ought to at least acknowledge the risk," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT).

"Some environmental extremists are against the project," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), apparently barely able to hear himself think over '$15 trillion!' screaming in his brain. "They are against every type of energy that comes from below the ground!"

Senate Democrats sent Clinton a letter calling on the State Department to review the Keystone XL project in light of leaks on TransCanada's existing pipelines and recent spills in the Mountain West.

The Obama Administration said it would decide the Keystone XL's fate by the end of the year.

In Canada's boreal forest, the caribou called the grey ghost nibbled its hundred-year-old lichen, billowing condensation from its nostrils into the chill morning air, another waft of carbon dioxide to be absorbed by towering woods that had done so since time immemorial.

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